On Monday morning, the Liberal Democrats set out the partyâs criminal justice policies. I was not there in person, as it clashed with a ministerial board on deaths in custody â a subject which is pressing at a time when more prisoners are taking their own lives behind bars. In advance of the speech, the Independent on Sunday did ask my views on one of the Liberal Democrat proposals: the establishment of a Womenâs Justice Board. I was not keen, for reasons I will explain below. But there were things to welcome in the policy platform outlined at the event, not least the admission that rising prison numbers are a sign of failure and not success.
Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes were clear that the overuse of prison makes us less safe. They were clear that those sentenced to prison for a first offence are much more likely to reoffend than those who are not. They were also clear that huge numbers of those in prison suffer from mental illness and need help not punishment. These are welcome statements we all too seldom hear from leading politicians.
It was also heartening to learn that Nick Clegg highlighted the way in which criminal justice policy often seems to ignore evidence in a way that would never be tolerated in any other arena of government. The evidence is clear, we have far too many people in prison and it isnât doing us any good.
Alongside these statements, there were a number of other proposals, including the expansion of liaison and diversion schemes, the greater use of restorative justice and preventing children in care being drawn into the justice system over issues which would usually be dealt with informally by parents or guardians.
As I have said, I was less enthusiastic about the proposal to create a new Justice Board for women. I fear the creation of another quango within the criminal justice system is not the answer. Advocates of the Youth Justice Board forget that over its first few years, the YJB saw an explosion in the number of children sucked into the criminal justice system and ending up in custody. Even with the welcome drop in recent years, there are still more children behind bars than in the days prior to the YJB. I would not want to see the same thing happen with women.
The Liberal Democrats also proposed bringing young adults within the aegis of the YJB. The Howard League is keen to see more specialised support for young adults in the criminal justice system, but we are concerned that diluting the special protections that children should be accorded under the law would worsen their plight and not address the needs of young adults.
A Womenâs Justice Board, and the expansion of the YJB remit to cover young adults, are two policies announced by Nick Clegg which are broadly mirrored by proposals from the Labour party. If these two political parties find themselves in coalition negotiations, then these are shared policy planks which might swiftly become a reality. It is therefore all the more important that some hard thinking is done before new structures are put in place that could have the opposite effect than that intended.
The Howard League stands ready to help whichever political party, or parties, forms the next government. If prison numbers are to be reduced, then radical rethinking of the penal system is required.
There are some interesting anomalies in staffing levels between the public and private-sector prisons.
Whilst in the public sector the number of prison staff has been slashed to dangerous levels, a Parliamentary Question tabled by Julian Huppert MP elicited the fact that some of the private jails had increased their staffing levels last year.
I think this might be because under the contracts with the private jails they get extra money for overcrowding, or, possibly because they just have more freedom within their budgets to recruit when necessary. Either way, we will never know for sure because so much of the financial information about the private prisons is kept secret.
Of the Serco prisons (Doncaster, Dovegate, Lowdham Grange, Thameside, Ashfield) only Lowdham Grange increased its staffing levels and only by fewer than ten people.
Of the Sodexo prisons (Peterborough, Forest Bank, Bronzefield and Northumberland) only Peterborough increased its staffing by up to 30 more, whereas troubled Northumberland prison reduced its staff by up to 20.
Interestingly, it is the G4S prisons where the increases are consistent. Altcourse went from 250 to 270, Birmingham from 280 to 310, Oakwood from 260 to 270, Rye Hill from 120 to 140 and Parc from 280 to 300.
These figures are rounded to the nearest ten and cover the period March 2014 to June 2014.
It is possible that G4S felt its reputation was in tatters with the terrible reports on Oakwood and that it had to take action to ameliorate conditions in its prisons.
This contrasts with the cuts forced on public-sector prisons which the Howard League has highlighted repeatedly and has resulted in a significant deterioration in conditions and regime.
Public-sector prisons were subjected to a benchmarking exercise that compared them to private jails and required the staff cuts. Of course, cuts of 40 per cent plunged the prisons into an abyss of violence, self-harm and inactivity, and morale hit rock bottom. A knee-jerk reversal was quickly ordered by panicked Ministers who loudly proclaimed that they are hiring 1,700 extra staff.
So it seems that both the public and private prisons are, finally, starting to realise the prisons required sufficient staff. I think they also require staff to be appropriately remunerated, well managed, educated and trained. But that may be asking too much.
Imagine spending 22 hours a day locked in a room. You might be allowed to make a phone call. A half-hour break to exercise. A shower if you are lucky.
Imagine having to endure this ordeal day after day after day without knowing when it will end.
Now imagine how you would feel if no one knew it was happening to you and you felt powerless to do anything about it.
Welcome to the unreported world of solitary confinement in prisons in England and Wales.
It is a world which the Supreme Court will be asked to explore in a two-day hearing, starting today. The Howard League for Penal Reform is intervening in this case as it raises important issues of public interest.
Segregation â the practice of separating prisoners from other prisoners â is a common feature of the prison system. Not all prisons have designated segregation units but most do, and they are used for various reasons.
Prisoners might be segregated for âgood order and disciplineâ or while they are waiting to be tried under the prisonâs discipline rules.Â Â The reason may be to prevent prisoners from harming others or an attempt to protect them. But such a drastic measure can have grave consequences, as the court will hear.
In the Howard Leagueâs experience, it is not unusual for prisoners who are segregated to experience levels of isolation that are equivalent to solitary confinement. The Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has made the connection explicit by stating that âsolitary confinement is also known as âsegregationâ.â
In its report in 2013-14, Whitemoor prisonâs Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) did not hesitate in using the term âsolitary confinementâ to describe the segregation regime.
â(W)e routinely observe prisoners held in segregation,â the board wrote, âincluding the one held for the entire period under review and more â and who attempted suicide.
âWe adhere to the use of the term solitary confinement, by which we mean being held alone in a cell for 23 hours a day â often without a TV or working radio, and with no meaningful occupation â interspersed with only very occasional contacts with prison officers, usually through a closed door.â
Other IMB reports make similar observations. It is widely accepted that prisoners in England and Wales are being held in solitary confinement. But we do not know how many.
As far as we are aware, the number of prisoners subject to segregation is not publicly available. Parliamentary Questions have been asked, concerning the number of people segregated and how many of these people have protected characteristics, but the Government has confirmed that this information is not collated centrally.Â What we do know is that the prevalence of segregation and the length of time men, women and even children spend in isolation varies markedly across the prison estate.
A number of prisons, both open and closed, including North Sea Camp, Spring Hill, Blantyre House, Send, Askham Grange and Hatfield, manage without a designated segregation unit at all. In contrast, HM Inspectorate of Prison reports have highlighted jails where the use of segregation seemed continually and excessively high.
The length of time that people have been segregated ranges from a number of hours to more than five years.
What we do know about solitary confinement paints a worrying picture.
In its annual report for 2013-14, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman drew attention to the âdisproportionately high number of self-inflicted deaths in segregation unitsâ.
In the same year, HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that there had been seven deaths in segregation.
One of the men who died had self-harmed on the very day he was placed in segregation, but his case was not reviewed and no exceptional measures were put in place. He was found hanging in his cell after only two days in the unit.
The Howard Leagueâs experience of working with prisoners subjected to long-term segregation is that they often tend to be the most disturbed and vulnerable, characterised by being young, institutionalised, with mental health difficulties and histories of self-harm and attempted suicide.
The charity has worked with a number of young people who have been segregated for long periods pending a transfer to hospital under the Mental Health Act or who have self-harmed prolifically while detained for many months in isolation.Â There is no clear route for prisoners to challenge their segregation and no independent scrutiny of it.
Our experience is that segregating vulnerable and disturbed people tends to make their problems worse.Â The most vulnerable are the least equipped to challenge their segregation without help or a fair system in place. The risks of putting people in solitary confinement are clear, but the safeguards are inadequate.
The Howard League is presenting expert evidence to the Supreme Court today based on our many years of experience in working in prisons, conducting research and representing young people in custody.
We published a report by the independent Commission on Sex in Prison today that raised the spectre of prison creating more sex offenders. Locking up young boys in violent macho jails at the most formative time in their lives could be storing up problems for the future.
Child jails are in a bad way. I am getting evidence every day of problems at Feltham. Our lawyers have witnessed fights in the visiting hall recently. The most worrying aspect of this was that the boys seemed to think that fights taking place in the visits hall was perfectly normal and happened all the time.
Boys have called the Howard League helpline asking for help because they have been subjected to what they perceive as homophobia from staff.
In what is becoming an increasingly typical plea for help, a boy recently told us that had been contained in his cell for weeks with no association with any other child, let out for only 30 minutes every other day to have a shower, permitted no exercise or education or activities. He has now been in isolation for almost six weeks.
Other boys are punished by having their televisions taken away, but if they are sharing a cell that means the boy who has done nothing wrong also has no TV. As boys are locked in their cells for most of the day and night, with nothing to do, a television can be a lifeline.
Prison workers and boys alike are concerned at the lack of activity caused by having too few staff and too few experienced and well-trained staff.
What happens inside jails does not stay inside jails. Staff having to cope with aggression and being fearful of the possibility of being assaulted take their fear and stress home with them. Boys having experienced violence, bullying and being caged for days on end take their anger and resentment home with them. We all suffer the consequences of a policy that damages children.
Yesterday our excellent, award-winning probation service was handed over to a handful of private companies. Iâm surprised that the Ministry of Justice tried to draw such a lot of attention to this fact as the whole programme is in a big muddle.
To remind those that havenât followed the Transforming Rehabilitation programme closely the most significant changes are:
- The probation service has been split in two. The National Probation Service (NPS – still a public service) and 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs – that, as of yesterday, are privately owned).
- Anyone the courts think should get a short prison sentence will now get an additional sentence of one year under the supervision of one of these companies.
- The NPS will manage people convicted of more serious crimes.
The Howard League has major reservations about these changes. You can read more detailed information about our opposition here.
But focusing on today, it is clear that the system is in a big muddle and many questions have not been answered. Here are just some of the problems.
The Ministry of Justice has got its numbers wrong. Its press release states that “45,000 people sentenced to short sentences will now receive at least 12 months supervision in the community”. But last year over 58,000 people were handed short sentences by the courts. What is happening to the other 13,000? Has the whole system been organised on the basis of the wrong number of people?
Also, where is all the money coming from? The Justice Secretary was clear from the beginning that no extra money will be spent on this programme, everything will come from the existing probation budget. Even if you believe that payment by results will reduce costs in the long-term, (and I donât) itâs obvious that setting up such a complex programme and providing services to thousands more people is expensive. Iâm worried that money that would otherwise go to the NPS to work with the most dangerous people in society is being spent to set up and fund all these new companies. The Ministry of Justice has not answered this.
How will the probation staff based in the courts work? Â As far as I can tell officers from the NPS will be expected to write reports and recommend sentences for people they have never met and whose sentence will be delivered by one of the CRCs. Whatâs more, the probation officers will not have a clue what services the CRCs will be providing and whether or not they are any good.
I imagine that the magistrates courts are in disarray today. Adding an extra 12 months’ supervision in the community to a short prison sentence changes it enormously. It becomes a much more serious and onerous sentence overnight, raising issues of proportionality. I know many magistrates are concerned that they havenât received any training. They also know very little about the private companies now tasked with delivering the sentences they hand down.
Anyone not complying with the year-long supervision could be sent back to prison and the Ministry of Justice has said this could mean 22,000 people every year requiring 900 more prison places. There appears to be no budget for this.
Some people are going to benefit. Sodexo got contracts to run around a third of the supervision and when it all goes wrong they run prisons in their contract areas.
Itâs all such a big mess and it really didnât need to be. Almost everybody involved in probation work warned the Ministry of Justice against these changes and, when it became clear that the Ministry would not budge, it was begged to slow down so not to put the public at risk.
You might have noticed that public ministerial responses to Howard League research and publications have been less than measured recently. Sometimes, it has to be said, ministerial pronouncements have verged on the bizarre and erroneous. We have tried not to respond in kind and we have let pass some of the more emotional outbursts. However, comments from ministers today concerning the deaths of people in prison are a step too far.
Eighty-two men and women, some as young as 18, took their own lives in prison last year and that is more people dying by their own hand than in the previous year â a year which itself saw a sharp increase on the years before it. Arguably once the state takes away your freedom it should care for you properly. You no longer have the freedom to choose how you deal with stress, depression, anxiety, bullying or a tragic event. You cannot go for a walk, and often cannot even cry because you are seen as weak and therefore a target. I will never forget the mother of an 18-year-old who hanged himself in Leeds prison telling me that she knew her boy had problems but at least she thought he would be safe when he went to prison.
It is not good enough for prison ministers to say that the Howard League is using misleading figures. Our figures come from the ministry. I sit on the ministerial board that oversees government strategy for preventing deaths in all forms of custody. The charity only uses official statistics.
It is not good enough for prison ministers to claim that we are using suicide statistics for our own campaigning purposes. Of course we are campaigning to end deaths in custody, it would be strange if we didnât. It is downright insulting for a prison minister who has only been in post for a few months to allege that the Howard League, founded 150 years ago exactly to prevent deaths in custody, is not committed to achieving this. And, I take it personally. My step father hanged himself in Bedford prison. I saw the distress it caused my mother, for years after. I know about what it means when a family member dies in custody. I will do anything, anything I can to prevent that happening to anyone else.
It is time that ministers acted in a more mature and appropriate way. I want to hear a commitment to end deaths in custody. I donât want to hear unbecoming complaints when a charity criticises their policies because people are dying.
The chief inspector of prisons today (13 January) published an inspection report on Feltham prison which made some devastating criticisms of the way children are treated.
The Howard League legal team has a lot of contact with young people imprisoned in Feltham though our legal helpline.Â Our lawyers regularly visit young people in the establishment.
On several occasions our lawyers have come away with a strong sense of the anxiety felt within the establishment, with young people and staff looking over their shoulders waiting for something violent to happen. The sense of violence is palpable.
A child, whom I shall call Peter (not his real name) who has been in Feltham for almost a year recently told one of our lawyers that he has been subject to a restricted regime for the majority of time, he has been banged up (alone in his cell) for 23.5 hours a day. He has nothing to do in his cell: he struggles to read and only has a radio. He has only been allowed to attend education for one day in his whole time there. He feels unable to manage his emotions and finds being banged up all day just makes these difficulties even harder.Â Even though our lawyers have been in contact with Peter for some time about other issues, it was only very recently that he revealed that he has been living like this for so long.Â Presumably he felt there was nothing that anybody could do about it.
Our lawyers regularly come into contact with children and young adults who have been isolated, either in the segregation unit or on the wings for significant periods of time.
Last November we alerted the local children’s safeguarding board to our concerns following an increasing number of children in conditions of isolation. We have had no response.
The inspectorâs report found:
- Most boys had limited time unlocked, but for a significant minority (26%) it could be an hour a day (some as little as 30 minutes) and this amounted to solitary confinement. Most boys spent about 7 hours out of their cell on weekdays.
- Attendances at activities was too low and absences often occurred for unjustified reasons.
- The number of fights and assaults had reduced since the last inspection but violence was still higher than elsewhere. There had been 262 fights and assaults in the six months before the inspection compared with over 300 over the same period in 2013. This included 79 assaults on staff.
- A significant amount of the conflict was gang-related. 26% of the children were being managed at the time of the inspection were either on restricted regimes or âkeep apartâ lists. 48 gangs were represented in Feltham A at the time of the inspection.
- Use of force had increased dramatically â the rate over the previous six months was 79% higher than the same period at the last inspection.
- The number of adjudications had risen very sharply to an average of 126 a month, most arising from acts or threats of violence. Inspectors note that âthis heavy use of formal disciplinary procedures, designed for use with adults, added to the proliferation of institutional responses to poor behaviourâ.
- The number of self-harm incidents had reduced, but the management of these cases was just adequate, and too many boys in crisis were left locked up for too long with not enough to do.
- Apart from on Curlew unit, all boys were locked in their cells for meals, despite the fact that many boys had requested to dine out and there were communal dining tables on the units and outside.
- Staff were praised as âa staff group who were working very hard to deal with a significant number of very troubled young people. For the most part they seemed to be doing this in a calm, patient and sometimes courageous wayâ. Staff shortages and aspects of the restricted regime reduced contact time, but inspectors observed a generally good group of staff doing their best.
It’s complicated.Â It is clear from the contact the legal team has with the prison that many staff and young people alike feel unsafe.Â Our team comes across staff who clearly do care about the children and try their best in a very difficult situation but the sheer size of the institution, the huge number of boys, poor facilities and lack of staff means that Feltham hasnât worked properly for 30 years.
I had an altercation with a police officer on Saturday. It wasnât much, nothing really to make a fuss about, but, it was the first interaction with a police officer I have had in more than a decade (as a citizen, obviously I deal with police all the time professionally). And it did not go well.
I was in my local pub with my friends. One is a military historian of some repute, another an accountant, one works in publishing and another runs a small gardening business. It was not a busy night and my local pub has a mixed clientele with a few older regulars who sit quietly at the bar most nights.
I suddenly noticed a man, quite a large imposing man in a red jumper swearing and threatening to assault the landlord. He was threatening to hit the landlord, and spit at him, and he was streaming expletives. We all went quiet and the men in my group were apprehensive as they said they feared if he did get violent they would be expected to step in to protect the landlord.
The landlord is a very gentle and calm man and has run the pub for years with no trouble. He called the police.
Now the man was being threatening, but there was only one of him. So I was a little surprised when eight police officers piled into the pub from a couple of vans and cars.
They escorted the man outside and we could see that he was calming down and he walked away. The next surprise was the police didnât bother to come back into the pub to explain what action they had taken but just piled back into the van ready to drive off.
I went outside and asked what had happened. I was anticipating some reassurance that the man had left and we would be safe and they would keep an eye out. The officer closest to me was reasonably polite but the officer driving the van was just plain rude and aggressive. He told me to go home if I was worried, he threatened the landlord, he was abusive and uncivil.
I felt his behaviour mirrored that of the man in the pub. If a police officer is that rude to a sober, middle class, white, middle-aged woman, goodness only knows how he would behave with someone else.
I hope I donât have to have any other contact with the Met police as a citizen ever again.
It has not been a good week for the Ministry of Justice. On Friday it lost a judicial review that overturned its ban on books for prisoners, and on the Monday it had to pretend it had never banned journalists from attending a Howard League fundraising lunch. The ministry has become known for a mixture of ineptitude and vindictiveness.
The Howard League launched a campaign to allow books and other essentials to be sent in to prisoners following a ban introduced by the Ministry of Justice. The full story of the campaign is on our website and so I wonât go over it here. But, we did gain the support of top writers and it was a world media furore, making our justice system look ludicrous.
For years the charity has held fundraising events that are designed to educate people about prison issues, a key part of our charitable objectives. We were pleased to link with the Clink restaurant inside Brixton, to hold a fundraising lunch hosted by the High Sheriff of London. People made donations to our work and we gathered a glittering array of supporters, members, donors and some media types.
A couple of days before the event we heard that no journalists would be allowed to attend. So, we told them, and they got a little annoyed. Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, emailed and Ian Hislop phoned the Secretary of State to complain, several times.
All of a sudden the decision was reversed. It had, apparently, all been a misunderstanding. So we had a very convivial lunch. Silly Ministry of Justice.
The Ministry of Justice has published several press statements explicitly criticising the Howard League and I want to put the record straight.
Comments from ministers have disputed our claim that prisons are understaffed and overcrowded and that conditions have deteriorated.
First of all, the facts. How on earth would we know how many prison officers were working in each prison and the exact reduction in numbers unless the Ministry told us? We have only used official figures. So the statistics are robust and it is the case that ministers have overseen a 41 per cent cut in the number of front line prison staff.
Secondly, ministers criticise us for highlighting concerns raised by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and Independent Monitoring Boards about the sad state of prisons. The Inspector is appointed by the Queen to be her eyes and ears and the IMBs are appointed by the Justice Secretary to report directly to him on what is happening in prisons. Brixton IMB published its report on 11 November and the headline said that progress was hampered by âGovernment policiesâ. The following day the report from the Inspectorate on Elmley prison said that â and I am going to draw out concerns at length because it illustrates the seriousness of the state of prisons:
Staffing shortages and impact on regime
- At the heart of the prisonâs problems was a very restricted and unpredictable regime. Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day. Inspectors witnessed many examples of prisoners being turned away from education and work because prison officers were not available for supervision.
- Almost 200 men were unemployed and they routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells.
- During a roll check in the middle of the core day prior to any regime cancellations, about 46% of prisoners were locked in their cells.
- Ofsted judged the limited activity that was on offer as inadequate in every area.
- Much of the work was very mundane and the excessive 200 prisoners employed on domestic tasks were not kept fully occupied.
- To get a job, prisoners needed basic levels of English and maths â about 30% of the population needed assistance to reach this level but there was insufficient provision to meet the need.
- Only half of the offender supervisor posts were filled and these staff were frequently redeployed to other duties in the prison. One of the offender supervisors had 47 high-risk cases, none of whom she had seen in the last six to eight months.
- Lack of association time meant that prisoners found it difficult to use the phone to maintain contact with their families and work to support prisoners in maintaining positive family relationships was very limited. Visiting times were disrupted by staff shortages and there was little recognition of the difficulties visitors faced due to the prisonâs isolated location. At the time of the inspection it was hard to see how the prison would be ready for its new function as a resettlement prison.
- Library and gym access was severely restricted. Many prisoners said that they had not been able to visit the library for many months.
Self-harm, violence and riots
- The overall number of fights and assaults had increased by 60% over the past year and the trend was upwards.
- Â Over the previous 11 months there had been 11 acts of concerted indiscipline when prisoners had refused to return to their cells.
- More than half of prisoners told inspectors they had felt unsafe at some time.
- The first night centre was an unstable and frightening environment with a toxic mix of new prisoners and others who had been in trouble elsewhere in the prison.
- Inspectors witnessed vulnerable prisoners being abused without staff intervention.
- The number of self-harm incidents had increased and there had been five self-inflicted deaths since the last inspection in 2012.
- Inspectors found one example of a man who had been identified as at risk, who had a history of self-harm and whose mother had died three weeks earlier but who had not had the required initial assessment for almost four days. Staff told us this was not unprecedented.
- Â One in 10 prisoners told us they had developed a drug problem in the prison.
Overcrowding and physical condition
- The prison is very overcrowded, at the time of the inspection, it held 1,252 men, well above its certified normal accommodation of 985.
- Almost 200 prisoners were held three to a cell designed for two and 416 prisoners were doubled up in single cells. Many cells were poorly ventilated, very warm in the week of the inspection and had inadequately screened toilets.
- Prisoners told us they had difficulty obtaining cleaning materials and managers explained this was a consequence of budget restrictions.
- There was a major problem with bird droppings inside the buildings which were evident in many communal areas and on floors, hand rails and stairwells.
- Management of medicines was very poor, and this created serious risks of prisoners receiving the wrong dose at the wrong time and that the trading or theft of prescribed medicines would lead to trouble in the prison as a whole.
The report on Elmley prison follows reports in the last three months that show similar problems in Doncaster (run by Serco), Glen Parva (where teenagers have taken their own lives), Wandsworth, Cookham Wood (holds children), Altcourse (run by G4S), Gartree, Wymott, Swaleside, Chelmsford, Isis, Hindley (young adults), Preston, Ranby, Birmingham (G4S), Winchester and Wormwood Scrubs.
This is a public service in meltdown.
I have to say to ministers that the Howard League is only repeating the findings of official inspectors and monitors. Donât blame the messengers, look at the problem, it is of your creation and it is your responsibility.
The very day the Elmley inspection report was published another man died in the prison, taking the toll to seven deaths this year.
People are taking their own lives and others are dying by natural causes because there simply are not the staff to help them with a heart attack or life-threatening emergency. The responsibility lies with the decision makers.